Monday, March 03, 2014

Learning to trust the laughter

In selecting parts of my novel to read at events, I've been running up against a particular prejudice I didn't realize I harbored. It's actually really stupid. A lot of times, when I read my work to an audience, they laugh. Now, a lot of my work is satirical, which implies that if my audience laughs, I've succeeded. Besides, I personally like funny books, though my idea of funny may not be everyone's. Dostoevsky is funny. So is Richard Powers's new book, Orfeo. I didn't expect that, because these guys have long worn the mantel of Serious Artists who write about Serious Subjects.

So why does it make me nervous when people laugh? Because deep down, I fear the laughter means my work isn't serious. If you're laughing, you're making light of something, evading, skating on the surface rather than diving in.

But this isn't true! George Saunders talks about this all the time, possibly because the question comes up for him, too: are you really "just" making jokes? He recently said in Salon:

[Y]ou can’t play it large unless you play it small. And you also can’t eradicate one or the other. An amateur eradicates one or the other. A real writer would say, “No, both exist. Of course they do. Serious and funny. Hunger and satiation, they exist.” In a certain sense, you just have to see where you are in that cycle, and the story is an entity and response to itself.
The complexity is in saying, “Oh, this story is so funny. Is it a little too funny? Is it too silly?” And the writer goes, “Maybe.” Boom! And then something really significant happens, and the reader goes, “Oh, I misjudged you.” That’s a wonderful artistic feeling, when you’ve said to the artist, “I’m sorry, I misjudged you.”

There are different kinds of funniness, of course. What Saunders is getting at is that life's staggering complexity encompasses laughter as well as earnestness, and that one powerfully can set off the other--or incorporate it. Laughter isn't just a way of dismissing something--it can be a reaction of surprised recognition, a sign of empathy between reader and author. It can also contain deep darkness. I remember laughing hysterically with my mom at my dying father's bedside. But that's another story.

The point is, trust the laughter. Your own, and your reader/listener's.

Anyway, here's my cat, Bella, sitting on page proofs of Bigfoot and the Baby.

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